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Q147 : Was the Apostle John a Martyr for the Faith?

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Q147 : Was the Apostle John a Martyr for the Faith?

Some Christians hold that all the Apostles (besides Judas, who hung himself) died a martyr’s death, and this is somehow an evidence of testimony of the validity of the death, burial and particularly the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The idea that all of the remaining Apostles died a martyr’s death with seemingly nothing to gain from such a stance if the resurrection of Christ were not true validates the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. This view sounds plausible but there does not seem to be any real biblical evidence that this is the case: most of what we think we know about the deaths of the apostles seems to come from extra-biblical sources and accounts.

Another view is based on a couple of biblical similarities between the Apostle John and Daniel, as well as the conversation Jesus had with Peter after his resurrection: “If I will that he remain till I come, what [is that] to you? You follow Me.” (John 21:22) after which time he appeared to some many witnesses (1Cor. 15:6). First the connection between Daniel and John: why a comparison between these two? Well for one the thing which these two men gave account of have striking similarities and are not coincidental seeing they both deal with Israel and the final days of the earth and the ushering in of the rule and reign of Christ. Also, John and Daniel where the only two men who were entrusted with such incredible revelation and also called “beloved” of God. The best dating of the Book of Revelation is in the AD 90’s which makes John a very old man, which I think just adds to the position in my mind that John, like Daniel, was given a long life and allowed to die of “natural” causes as opposed to dying as a martyr.

This second view is more compelling to me than extra-biblical conjecture, but I know that most scholars believe he was martyred. Just wanted to know what you thought and why you may hold the opinion you do?

A147 : by Tony Garland

There are definitely some interpreters who believe that John was not a martyr, but died a natural death:

Tradition has it that John lived at Ephesus to an old age . . . We can neither prove nor disprove this. Sometimes it is said that John was martyred quite early . . . If true this would rule him out as the author of any of our NT books. But the reasons are scarcely sufficient. A seventh-century summary of a fifth-century writer, Philip of Side, reports that Papias said that John and James were killed by the Jews. But Philip was a careless writer and nobody else seems to have found the reference in Papias. The ninth-century George the Sinner repeats the statement about Papias, or at least one manuscript says he does. But there is no evidence that he has any authority for this other than Philip of Side or his summarizer. To this is added the evidence of some church calendars (i.e., calendars which indicate the days on which the saints were commemorated) where James and John are commemorated together . . . But it is scarcely necessary to point out that commemoration together does not mean that both were martyrs, and even if they were it does not mean that they were martyred at roughly the same time. Those who favor the early martyrdom take Mk. 10:39 as a prophecy after the event, and say it indicates that John had already been martyred when Mark’s Gospel was written. This is surely an argument without weight. All in all the evidence brought forward for early martyrdom is very scanty and it is better to reject the whole idea. There is no solid argument against the tradition that John lived to a great age and was active in the service of his Lord.
— Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopediaa, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 2:1108.

While I would agree with the above conclusion that John was not martyred at an early date, when considering whether John eventually died a natural death or was martyred, several points should be born in mind.

First, if we relied entirely on Scripture for everything we know about the Apostles, then we couldn't definitively say that Paul was beheaded under Nero since Scripture only records his expectation of death. Thus, we are left relying on extra-biblical materials to fill in some aspects of history which are not definitively recorded in Scripture. In this case, we do have some tradition indicating that John was killed by the Jews — although not early:

After Domitian [81-96], Nerva reigned one year [96-98]. He re-called John from the island and allowed him to live in Ephesus. At that time he was the sole survivor of the twelve disciples, and after writing the Gospel that bears his name was honored with martyrdom. For Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, who had seen him with his own eyes, claims in the second book of the Sayings of the Lord that he was killed by the Jews, thus clearly fulfilling, together with his brother, Christ’s prophecy concerning them and their own confession and agreement about this.

For when the Lord said to them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” and they eagerly assented and agreed, he said: “You will drink my cup and will be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.” And this is to be expected, for it is impossible for God to lie. Moreover the encyclopedic Origen also affirms in his interpretation of the Gospel According to Matthew that John was martyred, indicating that he had learned this from the successors of the apostles. In addition, the well-informed Eusebius says in his Ecclesiastical History: “Thomas was allotted Parthia, while John received Asia, where he made his residence and died in Ephesus.”
— Georgius Hamartolus (George the Sinner, ninth c.), Chronicle cited in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers : Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 573.

Second, as mentioned by George the Sinner above, we have a fairly clear passage in inspired Scripture which seems to predict the martyrdom of John:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized;... (Mark 10:35-39, emphasis mine)

So it would depend upon what one concludes Jesus was talking about concerning the cup that He would drink. I think most would conclude He spoke of His own martyrdom (Matthew 26:39). If so, then our Lord seems to be prophesying a martyr’s death for John.

Third, a passage which is sometimes interpreted as teaching that John would live long or die a natural death is not necessarily teaching such:

Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what [is that] to you? You follow Me.” Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If I will that he remain till I come, what [is that] to you?” (John 21:22-23)

John corrects the misinterpretation that Jesus was stating that John would not die. This then underscores that Jesus was not saying anything about whether John would live long or not—but that it was none of Peter’s business one way or the other. So I don't think the passage at the end of John mandates that John would not be martyred — especially in light of Mark 10:35-39 which explicitly infers the opposite.

In conclusion, my view is that 1) Jesus prophesied that John would be martyred; 2) Jesus’s comments at the end of the Book of John were informing Peter that John and his own destiny could be completely different if it were Jesus’ will — not necessarily that they would be. I believe Jesus was essentially reminding Peter, “keep your eyes on Me and mind your own business.” Thus, I would fall in the camp of those who see John as having been martyred, probably at an advanced age — whether we have the details or not.

As for other apostles where the scriptures are silent, I think the tradition is simply that: tradition. We can't depend on it fully for what happened. For example, tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down:

The tradition is that he died a martyr at Rome about 67 AD, when about 75 years old. His Lord and Master had predicted a violent death for him (John 21:18-19), which it is thought came to pass by crucifixion under Nero. It is said that at his own desire he was crucified head downward, feeling himself unworthy to resemble his Master in his death.
— James Orr, M.A., D.D., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopediab : 1915 Edition.

Although we really don't know for certain how and when Peter was martyred, we do know from inerrant prophecy that Peter was martyred (John 21:18-19)!

Whether all of the Apostles died a martyr’s death or not, there remains strong historical evidence concerning the way in which they lived following the crucifixion of Jesus to cause any unbiased observer to wonder how it was they were so radically transformed if not by a real encounter with the risen Christ!


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